There’s no doubt that whale sharks are not only the largest fish in our oceans – they are also one of the most iconic and one that features on most scuba divers’ bucket lists! The mighty whale shark is a regular visitor to our island home of Koh Tao here in Thailand and if you want to dive with one, here’s a few things you should know about them and our whale shark season.
Koh Tao’s Whale Shark Season
Because whale sharks are migratory, sightings around Koh Tao are seasonal. The main whale shark season in Koh Tao runs starts from late March through to early June with early March and late June being shoulder periods. We also have a second season around September through to October.
Facts about Whale Sharks
Having a little bit more knowledge about whale sharks can make sightings even more enjoyable as you can recognize and understand the behaviours that are on display. To get your whale shark knowledge off to a start, here are 10 facts about these amazing marine giants.
Whale sharks (Rhincodon Typus) are a type of shark and not a whale. They are the largest fish and the largest non-mammalian vertebrate in the world.
Whale sharks are known to grow up to 12 meters in length and can weigh up to a colossal 20 tonnes in weight!
Whale sharks take up to 30 years to reach maturity and they can live in the wild for up to 70 to 100 years.
Whale sharks may be big but they are gentle giants that filter-feed on a diet of plankton, small fish, and fish eggs that are drifting with the currents.
When feeding, whale sharks swim forward with their wide mouths open while they suck water into their mouth. This forces water over the gills – which is how the whale shark breaths. The gill rakers act like strainers, filtering out the water while keeping solid organisms (smaller than about 2cms in diameter) inside the whale sharks mouth.
The mouth of a whale shark can be up to 1.5 metres wide to allow for plenty of water to flow in and through. Unlike in other species the mouth is positioned on the front of the head rather than on the underside.
Whale sharks have around 3,000 teeth! However, the teeth are tiny and they play no function in feeding. They have a number of filters that are used to retain food and allow water to pass through.
Whale sharks are a 5 gill species of shark (meaning they have 5 pairs of gills).
Whale sharks have extremely hard outer skin which is rough to touch and can be up to 14cm thick!
The white spots on a whale shark are similar to human fingerprints - the exact spot pattern is unique to each whale shark and can be used as a method to identify individuals.
Whale Shark Sightings in Koh Tao
Here at FIFTY SIX Dive our experienced team know all of the best sites for potential whale shark sightings – and they are excellent spotters! Many of Koh Tao’s pinnacle dive sites offer the best whale shark encounter opportunities, including Chumphon Pinnacle, Sail Rock, and South West Pinnacle. These sites are magnets for some of Koh Tao’s most iconic marine life species!
Other sites where we see whale sharks are Shark Island in the south, Hin Wong Pinnacle in the east, and Green Rock off the north west coast of Koh Nangyuan island.
Our team will give you dive site briefings before diving at any site with us, so you’ll always feel confident when entering the water and know what to expect. They’ll also remind you about some guidelines for diving with whale sharks – so that you experience a great encounter and the whale shark’s natural behaviour remains undisturbed – a win-win!
Diving with Whale Sharks and FIFTY SIX Dive in Koh Tao
It’s super important to all of our FIFTY SIX Dive crew that we do our utmost to protect our local marine life and support them in continuing to flourish at our dive sites. Here are some of the guidelines we observe while diving with whale sharks in Koh Tao:
If we see a whale shark from the boat: This can happen! It’s okay to get in but try to keep noise and surface splashing to a minimum so as not to spook the animal. Enter the water by sliding in slowly from the boat feet-first (do not jump). Keep your fins under the surface of the water while you are kicking to reduce splashing.
Look but don’t touch: Touching whale sharks will stress the animal and normally cause them to dive instantly. Human touch can also cause, or leave the whale shark susceptible, to skin infections.
Keep your distance: Stay at least 3 meters (9 ft) away from the head and 4 meters (13 ft) from the tail. If the whale shark comes directly towards you, remain calm – you are not in danger. If you are in a group, split into two groups to allow the shark to swim between you.
Move calmly and slowly: Do not chase whale sharks or block their path. Approach the whale shark from the side and for the best view of the whale shark in the water swim alongside the shark near its pectoral fins. If a shark banks (rolls over) back away – it is asking for space! It’s important that the whale sharks natural behaviour, or planned direction of swimming is not interfered with by your encounter. We practice passive observation.
Underwater Photography: When taking images of whale sharks, avoid directing the flash or any strobes directly into the whale sharks eyes.
Planning Your Trip
Not yet a certified scuba diver? No problem! Join us for the PADI Open Water Diver Course, get certified to dive to 18 meters, and make four incredible dives in the ocean with us!